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MDH and Everest controversy: Why the kings of Indian masalas are under the scanner

Hong Kong and Singapore have recently banned a few masalas produced by these two Indian companies because of ethylene oxide contamination which has the potential to cause cancer. Everest says the reports are false, while MDH is yet to issue a statement

Samidha Jain
Published: Apr 25, 2024 01:37:45 PM IST
Updated: Apr 25, 2024 02:07:38 PM IST

MDH and Everest controversy: Why the kings of Indian masalas are under the scannerA shopkeeper is holding packets of Everest's Fish Curry Masala at a department store in Baramulla, Jammu and Kashmir, India, on April 23, 2024. The said masala has been put under the scanner in Singapore for containing cancer causing chemicals. Image: Getty Images

MDH and Everest masalas can be found in the grocery baskets of most Indian consumers. The spice manufacturing companies, started in 1919 and 1967 respectively, that promise to enhance the flavour in your food dishes have become a household name among Indian families. However, they find themselves in a spot now.

Authorities in Hong Kong and Singapore recently tested some of the products manufactured by these brands, and found ethylene oxide in them. It’s a pesticide—not meant to be used in food products—that can be a cause for cancer. Hong Kong has withdrawn four spice blends—MDH’s Madras Curry Powder, Sambhar Masala Powder and Curry Powder and Everest Group’s Fish Curry Masala, while Singapore has withdrawn Everest’s Fish Curry Masala so far.

Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department released a statement, saying that it collected the samples of the spices in question from retail outlets for testing under its routine food surveillance programme. The results showed that the samples contained ethylene oxide. According to a report by Hindustan Times, the CFS informed vendors about the irregularities and instructed them to stop their sale and remove the products from the shelves. The Singapore Food Agency has also ordered back Everest’s Fish Curry Masala after finding ethylene oxide at levels “exceeding the permissible limit”.

Everest Food Products has responded to the controversy, saying its spices have not been banned in Hong Kong and Singapore. According to NDTV, the company spokesperson said: “There have been reports of Everest being banned in Singapore and Hong Kong, but we want to clarify that this is false. Everest isn’t banned in either country. Only one out of 60 Everest products has been held for examination.” The company asserted that its products are “safe and of high quality”. “Everest upholds strict hygiene and safety standards in its manufacturing facilities,” the spokesperson added. MDH is yet to issue a statement.

What is ethylene oxide?

As per the National Cancer Institute, US, at room temperature, ethylene oxide is a flammable colourless gas with a sweet odour. It is used primarily to produce other chemicals, and in smaller amounts, it is used as a pesticide and a sterilising agent. It is also used to make textiles, detergents, polyurethane foam, medicine, adhesives and solvents. Ethylene oxide is used as a fumigant for food spices to prevent microbial contamination, such as E coli and Salmonella. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has pointed out that ethylene oxide has been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means it has “enough evidence to conclude that it can cause cancer in humans”. Those exposed to the chemical for a long time could face irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat and lungs, and damage to the brain and the nervous system.

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This isn’t the first time that these companies have made headlines for the wrong reasons. In June 2023, the US Food and Drug Administration mandated the withdrawal of Everest's Sambhar Masala and Garam Masala, along with Nestle's Maggi Masala-ae-Magic from 11 states due to a positive test for Salmonella bacteria. This bacterium is known to cause symptoms such as diarrhoea and nausea. Similarly, in September 2019, the Food and Drug Association had requested MDH to recall its Sambhar Masala in Northern California due to contamination with Salmonella.

Post this row, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has ordered Indian states to collect samples of different spices produced by these companies and run quality checks. The two companies are under the scanner and if found guilty, they will face action as per the Food Safety Act.